For as long as she can remember, 17-year-old Alyssa Gialamas has loved the pool. For her, it was the one place where she could feel and be treated just like everyone else.
When she swims in next month's Summer Paralympic Games in London, though, she hopes to prove she's not at all like anyone else.
She is scheduled to compete in the 50-, 100- and 200-meter freestyle events.
The Waubonsie Valley High School junior was born with arthrogryposis, a neuro-musculo-skeletal disorder that causes contractures, stiffness, poor mobility or immobility, and muscle fatigue.
Gialamas' knees, feet, hands, wrists and jaw are affected by the disorder, which requires her to wear leg braces to walk.
Her mother, Lisa Gialamas, said that despite the disorder, it was important to help Alyssa find her "lifetime sport" that both provided her needed exercise and therapy and enjoyment.
"I love swimming because the pool is the only place I can be myself and not have to worry about special rules for Alyssa or being treated differently," the swimmer said. "When I jump in the water, my lane is the same as everyone else's and all I have to do is get to the other side and back faster than everyone else in the water."
During her two years swimming competitively, Alyssa has done just that and shattered records in the process.
While swimming with the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association the past two years, Gialamas was classified as an S5 swimmer, which means she has limited use of her torso and leg muscles while swimming. While competing in the new classification, her times began to improve and invitations to more and more prestigious meets and time trials came her way.
"The support I get from my friends and family is awesome, so I never even felt any pressure," she said. "Swimming is just something I do for fun and I happened to win a few medals doing it. It wasn't until Team USA invited me to the Parapan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, in November when I realized how big this could get."
Once she got there, won four silver medals in the 50-meter backstroke, the 50-meter freestyle, the 100-meter freestyle and the 200-meter freestyle, and shattered several American records in her classification, things got even bigger.
Her 200-meter freestyle time of 3:22.24, the eighth-fastest in the world in her category, caught the coaches' attention.
"She was having this awesome run in Guadalajara when the Team USA coaches told her they would see her in London," Lisa Gialamas said. "Our mouths hit the floor because we've kind of been stumbling through this process and going to meets never knowing Alyssa would take this thing all the way to London. We're all so proud of her."
For the next two weeks Alyssa will train with White Water Aquatic Club swim coach Dave Graffy at Waubonsie Valley before she begins her trip to London on Aug. 15. It will be a repetitive two weeks.
"I wake up at 7 a.m. to be at the pool from 8 to 10 a.m., then I go home and sleep for a bit after two hours of nonstop swimming," she said. "Then in the afternoon I hit the cardio with bands and weights, have dinner, go to bed and start all over again in the morning.
But Graffy said the practice is paying off.
"She's more determined than any swimmer I've coached and it's worked for her," he said. "She swam her butt off and earned a trip to London."
On Aug. 15, Alyssa will fly to Germany where she will train for a few days with Team USA before heading to London in time for the games, which run Aug. 29-Sept. 8.
"Excited isn't the word for me right now. I'm staying in the Olympic village and swimming in the Olympic pool while representing my country," she said. "I'm also proud to be able to spread the word about the Paralympics from my little corner of the world."
For those looking to follow along with Alyssa's journey, Lisa will be blogging about the experience and Alyssa promises to keep her Facebook and Twitter updated as often as her coaches will allow. Lisa's blog is http://alyssalondon2012.blogspot.com/ and you can follow Alyssa on Twitter at @AlyssaGialamas.